Tri-County health board imposes mask mandate for Aurora region

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AURORA | The Tri-County Health Department will impose a mask-wearing requirement of some kind on Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties, although jurisdictions will be able to opt out of the order, expert appointees decided July 8.

The public health authority’s Board of Health decided in a narrow 5-4 vote on the mask mandate. Members Kaia Gallagher and Thomas Fawell of Arapahoe County voted against the order, joined by Douglas County representatives Marsha Jaroch and Zachary Nannestad.

“Everybody should be wearing a mask across the Tri-County area,” said Adams County representative Julie Mullica, an infectious disease expert who voted for the mandate.

Residents in jurisdictions where elected officials agree with the order will have to wear masks in public spaces. Recently, City of Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman has prominently called for a mask mandate, which he and Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas say is necessary with concerning COVID-19 upticks in the region.

The vote directs Dr. Doug to set out details of the order, including where masks are and are not required. With the opt-out clause, the Tri-County mandate will land the final word on a mask requirement back to Aurora and other county, municipal officials. Aurora originally declined to impose a mask mandate in May.

It was immediately unclear whether an exception for Aurora could be invoked by the city manager or a majority vote of the Aurora City Council.

However, Coffman had repeatedly urged board of health members to impose a mandate on the entire jurisdiction.

Coffman took to Twitter Wednesday afternoon and expressed disappointment that the mandate didn’t have enough teeth.

“I support the Tri-County Health Department’s face mask mandate although I disagree with their ‘opt out’ provision,” he said on Twitter. “Either it’s important enough, from a public health standpoint, to have a mandate or it isn’t. I believe it is.”

Some municipalities and counties will likely consider opting out of the order, possibly re-creating a “patchwork” of rules Coffman says has left metro area residents confused and unsafe.

The Board of Health vote gave Douglas the authority to craft an order, which will expire within 90 days from its implementation date. Douglas now has the power to tweak, extend or abolish the order.

As of July 8, it’s not clear how authorities will enforce the order. Coffman told the Sentinel he’d prefer that police don’t become involved in enforcing the matter, unlike in neighboring Denver, where violators face an up to $999 fine. Douglas said during the meeting he agrees with Coffman.

Board of health members sparred mostly over the optics of a non-elected board of representatives imposing a sweeping and divisive rule on a diverse region.

But there was no disagreement about the benefits of wearing masks. For months, experts have widely agreed that wearing a homemade mask can be one of the most effective methods of mitigating COVID-19 spread.

Mask mandates have been controversial in the U.S. at large and locally. In May, Tri-County Health Department board members received a threatening email calling for ‘civil war’ if members didn’t curb restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

That sentiment loomed large in the July 8 Board of Health meeting.

During the virtual meeting, held over a Zoom platform, members of the public flouted a rule against public input to condemn board members as “tyrants” and “communists.”

Douglas and other members addressed those concerns.

“I also get the fact that I am not elected,” Douglas said, adding that he was “not really interested” in eclipsing local authority.

The board’s politically-charged decision came during a concerning uptick in novel coronavirus cases.

In the Tri-County Health jurisdiction, which covers all of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, cases surpassed 10,000 in early July. The region is home to 1.4 million people. The number of cases reported per day rose by nearly 30 percent in Arapahoe and Adams Counties, and doubled in Douglas County, between the second and fourth weeks of June.

The rate of positive cases has increased from 2.7% the week of June 7 to 3.48% last week, The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.

Health department data indicate that after two consecutive weeks of increases, the state recorded 1,734 new confirmed cases between June 29 and July 5, a slight decrease from the 1,748 cases reported the previous week.

When offering his support for a mask mandate, Douglas cited one early policy analysis suggesting more people wear masks when governments require them to.

As of July 8, 21 states had imposed mask mandates, according to Douglas. He said seven counties including Denver and at least six municipalities including Westminster had imposed mask mandates. On July 7, the City of Englewood also imposed mask requirements.

Editor’s note: This article was updated with Mayor Mike Coffman’s reaction to the mandate.